Protesters occupy Taiwan parliament over China trade pact

Protesters are fearful a trade deal with China could hurt Taiwanese businesses, and are concerned over closer ties between the independently governed island and mainland China.

Wally Santana/AP
Hundreds of people protesting against a China-Taiwan trade pact chant slogans while holding signs denouncing the government as they occupy the floor of the legislature in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

Hundreds of protesters are occupying Taiwan’s parliament to demand an item-by-item review of a stalled trade liberalization deal with China, an unusually aggressive move to seek more scrutiny for the pact before opening up sensitive segments of the economy.

After 100 university student protesters broke a glass door at the parliament building in Taipei late Tuesday and took over the legislative podium, supporters from around the island joined them Wednesday and clashed with about 2,000 police officers.

The occupation was unusual even for a city accustomed to protests and a parliament where lawmakers occasionally brawl with one another. But it signals anger with President Ma Ying-jeou’s ruling Nationalist Party for scheduling a vote without an item-by-item review of the deal that the main opposition party was expecting. The trade deal was signed in June 2013, but has not yet been ratified. 

Before the occupation, protesters were working with the opposition as it drums up support for year-end local elections that could influence the 2016 presidential race. The opposition takes a guarded view of closer ties with China, a political rival since the 1940s.

“They didn’t follow rules and declared the trade deal was okay for the assembly,” says Nathan Liu, an international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. That genuinely angered some students who view the Nationalist Party as ruling with a heavy hand. The students may also have been encouraged by opposition leaders, Mr. Liu says.

Mr. Ma’s approval ratings have fallen below 20 percent over the past year in part because he is perceived as too cozy with China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan.

The opposition party had asked for the review to protect Taiwan service sectors that could be hurt by competitors from the much larger mainland Chinese market, but the Nationalists felt that an item-by-item vote would take too long and that eight public hearings on the pact sufficiently got the word out about the deal’s content.

Officials in Beijing have scolded Taiwan for holding up passage of the trade pact, which analysts say would help larger companies in the island’s vast but underdeveloped service industry but may hurt smaller companies as rivals from the giant China market open shop.

The service trade agreement would open 80 sectors in China to Taiwanese investors and 64 on the other side. Taiwanese companies would be able to own controlling stakes in joint ventures and expand banking, healthcare, and tourism businesses in China.

Taiwanese officials expect that the deal, a follow-up to a 2010 pact that erased 800 import tariff categories, will modernize the service sector and create jobs. Mr. Ma’s administration has urged parliament on several occasions to approve the deal without further delays.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, creating a divide that once made such deals nearly impossible. Since Ma was elected in 2008, his government has set aside political differences to lift the island economy through trade, transit, and investment deals with China.

Ruling party legislators will let parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng, known as a consensus builder, decide whether protesters can stay in parliament through Friday, as demanded, for a trade deal hearing. 

“The students should not have been let in last night, but now it’s something the speaker needs to decide,” says Nationalist Party legislator Tsai Chin-lung. “Better negotiations between the two parties could have headed this off.”

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